When I was nine years old my Somali father told me to get excited because he had a special surprise for me. I wasn’t particularly impressed when we showed up at a hair salon, but I was content once the woman gave me candy to quell my childish fidgeting while she diligently straightened the curl out of my mixed race hair. When I came home that Saturday evening it was the middle of the summer, and my whole neighbourhood was out on their lawns. I remember some of my closest neighbours and friends coming over and telling me how beautiful I looked. This was my first experience with the fuss associated with being a female and altering my appearance.
Black girls with curly hair are taught, from the outset, that we have to change that curl in order to be beautiful. That means, more often than not, that a black girl’s first experience with the pressure to be beautiful is the realization that the hair of her race is inadequate. I cannot describe the elation I felt when everyone told me I looked beautiful, and how much time I spent in the mirror agreeing with them. There is constant feminist discussion of the pressure imposed on women to alter their appearance in order to fit an idealized vision of womanhood, but where is the discussion of how minority females are under pressure to fit into a racial norm they are bodily unable to fill? How can my genetic inheritance compete with the inheritance of racial norms in the society I live in?
For people who don’t have this problem, it is easy to think this is not, in fact, a racial issue. But there is a reason black women spend thousands of dollars on weaves, burn their scalps again and again with relaxers, and spend hours subduing their curls. I guarantee every black woman has experienced the hair-braided-so-hard-you-were-surprised-it-didn’t-bleed trauma by a tutting family member commenting on how“difficult” your hair was being. Decades of ridicule about nappy heads and kinky curls were among some of the ways black people were made to feel inferior. And this continues to filter insidiously into our cultures.
The legacy certainly continues in my life. When I go on a first date I almost always straighten my hair. And there are still some people in my life who tell me how great I look with straight hair after saying nothing when my hair was curly. A woman’s most hated phrase, “You look beautiful today,” creates a feeling of contingent beauty and this is what women find so debilitating to their self-esteem. Our beauty is not guaranteed by who we are. These people have good intentions, and it may seem extreme to be irritated by a good-hearted soul that gave me a compliment, but it is important to understand that these are the subtle ways in which women are pressured into changing their bodies.
I was talking to a friend about this, and on cue came the inevitable question: why do you straighten your hair, then? Shouldn’t you fight the system? The answer is simple: I straighten my hair because I feel like it. Because despite the cultural narrative, I don’t feel that my hair is a political tool; it is just protein that grows out of my head. The days I straighten it are the days when my mood calls for straight hair. Sure, my motivation is not always purely whimsical. Sometimes it is the urge to seek the feeling I had when I came home from the hairdresser that summer. But I have had black women lecture me on the importance of going “natural” to display my racial pride and defiance of social norms and guess what? They were just more people telling a woman what to do with her body. And through this entreaty to make my body a political tool, they disenfranchised me. My race suddenly brings a private style choice into the public sphere for all to comment on. And that’s not fair.
As I get older the insecurity associated with my hair dissipates more and more. I rock curly days and straight days and up days and down days and I feel free doing it. There are more and more days when I feel independent enough to appreciate the hilariously simple fact that, hey, it is just hair.
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